One of the constant threads throughout my life is that I have a surprisingly recalcitrant streak. Most people describe me as being ‘easy-going’, but the surest way to test my even-tempered nature is to tell me what I ought to think, feel, or do. I stopped participating in If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands when I was four or five, because I didn’t like being told that I had to show my happiness via clapping. I resented being told how to express myself. It was also not, in my estimation, a good way to indicate my mood. It was loud and unnatural. If I was happy, I would say so because even at four, I recognized what plenty of adults in failing relationships do not: clear, direct communication is crucial.
This stubborn streak, combined with an innate mistrust of trends, made me kind of a strange child. If I saw a product advertised on TV (which was how I consumed most of my advertising during the 1990s), I might initially be interested in it. But, if the product was advertised too frequently, I would immediately get tired of it and no longer care. Maybe I was fickle; maybe I craved novelty. Given that one of my preferred toys at this age was a gigantic rubber spider clearly meant to be a Halloween decoration, I think it was probably the latter. Whatever the reason, however, there should have been no doubt in anyone’s mind that I was the wrong type of child to try to advertise to. This was officially confirmed by a panel of experts when I was somewhere between the ages of six and eight and invited to participate in a market research study.
One fall morning, my parents drove me to a hotel near our house. We then took the elevator up to a very 80s conference room. My parents checked me in, and hugged me goodbye. I’m sure they expected that when they picked me up in a few hours, I would be in possession of some cash, or perhaps a new toy. I’m sure they didn’t expect their grade school daughter to experience her first true, intense hatred of capitalism. But that’s exactly what happened.
The woman who checked me in led to a large conference room with multiple rows of long tables facing the front. She instructed me to sit in a specific seat, with what seemed to be a vast and insurmountable gulf between myself and the girl closest to me. There were probably a dozen other girls in my general age range in the room, all waiting for something to happen. A few more girls trickled into the room, and then a man wheeled a TV on a cart to the front of the room. I know, of course, that that man could not possibly have been Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. But, that is how I remember him. He had one of those smiles that never completely met his eyes, and I could recognize this even at age seven. Once the door closed, he immediately adopted a painfully wide grin and began speaking to us as though we were either very, very young, or very, very stupid.
“Now girls,” 90s Businessman said, “my friend is going to pass out a piece of paper with some pencils for you. What we want you to do is circle the toy you think looks the best and cross out the toy you like the least.” He then proceeded to go over these directions an additional three times, because apparently he didn’t understand the developmental difference between the average seven year old and the average infant. Already vaguely irritated, I received my paper and looked at the toy selection. None of the toys were ones that I had, but I remember that they were all dolls of some variety. I think two of them were baby dolls and two were Barbies. Because I have always had the maternal instincts of a brick, I never gravitated towards baby dolls, so I narrowed it down to the two Barbie dolls. One was a Little Mermaid Barbie and the other was something else. I ended up circling the non-mermaid doll because I had recently entered a phase where Ariel’s bright red hair didn’t make sense to me. I figured it would be too easy to spot under water, and it was weird to me that all of the humans in Price Eric’s court were like, “yep, a mute woman with fire engine red hair. Totally normal. Nothing off putting about that at all.” I crossed out one of the baby dolls, because, as I said, no maternal instincts, even in grade school.
After our first sheet of paper was collected, 90s Businessman told us that we were, “going to watch a cartoon!” Of course, I was elated. I wondered to myself if we were going to watch Rugrats or a Pup Named Scooby-Doo (have I mentioned yet that it was the 90s?). I waited with anticipation as the TV turned on. However, much to my shock, it was not a cartoon that 90s Businessman played. Instead of the promised cartoon, my delightful marmosets, it was a commercial for the California Raisins immediately followed by an advertisement for the Ariel doll that was one of the toy choices from our paper. Then, 90s Businessman shut off the TV. I sat there for a few seconds, confused. Neither the dated claymation of the California Raisins nor the live action commercial for the Ariel doll was a cartoon. However, I was soon distracted from my protests by the next sheet of paper, which had the same toy choices on it. Again, 90s Businessman gave us patronizing instructions. Again, I circled the non-Ariel Barbie and crossed out the baby doll.
“We’re going to watch another cartoon!” 90s Businessman exclaimed after all our papers had been collected. I looked up again, in naive excitement, only to watch the exact same California Raisins commercial followed by the exact same Ariel Barbie commercial. And then, another piece of paper with the same choices was passed out to us. At this point, I grew irritated. I realized that 90s Businessman was either incredibly stupid, or outright lying to us.
We watched the same series of clips and filled out the same sheet of paper over and over again. I have no idea how many cycles of this insipidity we endured. It could have been five, it could have been fifty. After one of these rounds, I looked around me to see if any of the other girls were visibly distressed about being bored to death by a liar who didn’t know what a cartoon was. Nothing but placid, pasty faces stared back at me. Shortly after this revelation, I vowed to go home and immediately donate my California Raisins toys to GoodWill, because if I had to look at those weird lumpy musicians again, I was going to commit arson. To this day, I still have the overwhelming urge to smack boxes of raisins out of people’s hands. Oatmeal raisin cookies are, in my estimation, the preferred food of all liars and terrible people.
During one of these endless rounds of commercials and condescension, I suddenly remembered something my father often said: “advertising makes it happen.” A few months prior to this study, I asked him what that meant. He explained to me that “the more a product is advertised on TV, the more likely people were to buy it.” Remembering that conversation, something clicked in my head. They were using this study to see how long it took before they could brainwash us into buying their product! In addition to being thoroughly tired of seeing the same two advertisements, I also began to feel an unfamiliar feeling bubbling up in my stomach. As I got older, I would come to recognize that feeling as resentment.
“This is the last round!” 90s Businessman told us, grinning a smile with far too many teeth. Again we watch the same clip of the California Raisins immediately followed by the Ariel doll commercial. Again, we were given packets. I opened mine, experiencing what I can now only describe as ‘pure existential dread’. I stared down at the pictures. 90s Businessman had said that it was the last round, but I did not trust 90s Businessman. He was clearly a charleten who wanted to brainwash us all into buying mediocre Ariel dolls. Even at age seven, I realized that 90s Businessman did not have our best interests at heart. So I stared at the packet, emotionally exhausted, for what felt like hours. I studied each picture. Ariel’s plastic face had quickly become some sort of grotesque abomination. Rage bubbled up inside me. I immediately circled the other Barbie, took my pencil, and scribbled out Ariel’s vapid grin with enough force to rip a hole through the paper. The repetitive commercials had finally broken me. But, they probably didn’t break me in the way the study anticipated.
After we had all finished, we were escorted down to a small office, and each handed a Barbie doll to take home. It was not the Ariel Barbie doll, although this would be a much better story if it was. Instead, it was a ‘Workin’ Working out Barbie Doll, complete with hot pink scrunchie and tiny hand weights (and probably cardboard diet pills, because it was the 90s). I actually played with that doll a fair amount, mainly because she had articulated joints, which meant that she could be the karate chopping doll that I had always dreamed of. And I was never invited to participate in another market research study again.